Thursday, March 21, 2013

Top 10's of the decades - 1970's

10. Dog Day Afternoon (1975, directed by Sidney Lumet)
Al Pacino's greatest achievement as an actor is his work in Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon. He plays Sonny, who along with his buddy Sal (Pacino's good friend John Cazale) rob a bank in Brooklyn, ultimately getting stuck inside with all the employees as police surround the building. Based on a true story, though with plenty of inaccuracies as always with a movie, Dog Day Afternoon was revolutionary in its time for broaching the subject of gay relationships. Sonny is robbing the bank to pay for the sex change operation of his gay lover Leon (future Prince Humperdink Chris Sarandon, who's then wife Susan was starring in another 1975 gay culture revolution called The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Sadly, I think a major movie like this would still cause some controversy if it were made by a huge star and released today.

Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, Pacino creates one of the great characters in cinema in Sonny. He's smart, paranoid, angry, confused, and Pacino allows him to feel like a real life person, even though there's not a bit of what we think of as Al Pacino in the performance. Mannerisms, voice, everything is Sonny. Sarandon deservedly got nominated for an Oscar for his brief role, which is just as hilarious and tragic as Pacino's. Lumet's as always subtle work is phenomenal, as the lack of music makes things feel more real, ratcheting up the tension, and he keeps us inside with Sonny rather than spending too much time outside with the police. I thought it was a tad too long when I first saw it, but on a recent re-watch I didn't feel that at all.

9. Don’t Look Now (1973 directed by Nicolas Roeg)
Don't Look Now is the story of a couple, John and Laura (Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie) who lose a child to a freak drowning accident. They soon after travel to Venice, hoping a change of scenery will help them cope while John works restoring a church. Strange things happen on the job to John, while Laura meets two sisters, one of whom claims she's clairvoyant and that Laura's daughter is trying to contact her parents to warn of danger. John also begins catching glimpses of a tiny figure, in the same red rain coat his daughter died in, running around, but every time he follows, he loses the person in the labyrinthine streets of the city.

A psychological workout on many levels, even the infamous sex scene is wrought with layers of meaning as it cuts between Sutherland and Christie in bed and the couple getting dressed for dinner, also mimicking other time jumping cuts that director Roeg only lets us realize are happening at the last (and most emotionally impactful) minute. The sex scene was reportedly so intense even during filming that stories have gone over the years that it was not simulated, much to the anger of Christie's boyfriend at the time, Warren Beatty. Sutherland insists that it was not only fake, but choreographed by Roeg sitting behind the camera calling out what he wanted each of them to do while filming.

So much more than its famous sex scene, in 2011 Don't Look Now was voted by UK magazine Time Out as the #1 British movie of all time. It drips with foreboding atmosphere and like all great horror movies, works on your mind, not with blood and cheap thrills.

8. Annie Hall (1977, directed by Woody Allen)
Roger Ebert says that Annie Hall is "Just about everyone's favorite Woody Allen movie", and I guess that makes me like everyone because it is certainly my favorite. Turning a corner from his earlier farces (with which he'd had great success), Annie Hall adds a lot of depth and weight to Allen's still hilarious humor, making for THE romantic comedy of all time, even if it's too singular to Allen to be copied to death like rom-coms tend to be.

Miraculously winning Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress (miraculous because this was the year of Star Wars, after all), I think Woody and the gang deserved it. It's hilarious from start to finish, whether Woody is evoking Grouch Marx ("I'd never be a member of a club who'd someone like me as a member"), fearing for his life as Annie's crazy brother (played by an insanely young Christopher Walken) might kill them, or breaking the fourth wall and giving us in the audience little asides from the plot. My favorite is actually one with a hint of melancholy, where Alvy (Allen's character) tries to recreate different crazy antics he'd had with Annie with a new girl after he and Annie broke up, only to have the new girl not join in and him realize how special Annie was.

It was a turning point for Allen, as his next works became more serious, or at least were not silly, giving rise to the often uttered "I liked his earlier, funnier movies better." Not me, I think he only got better and better as a filmmaker, even if I think he never bettered this masterpiece.

7. Chinatown (1974, directed by Roman Polanski)
Jack Nicholson's Jake Gittes is one of the best and most understated performances of his career in Roman Polanski's downbeat classic Chinatown. Set in 1937, and obviously indebted to the crime movies of previous generations, Polanski doesn't shoot much at night, making Chinatown what I'd refer to as a daylight noir. John Huston was a towering directorial figure in the noir genre, and makes for a towering villain in this one. From his refusal to say Jake's name correctly (always calling him "Mr. Gits" instead of "Git-ies"), to the air of a charming snake oil salesman, everything about Huston's Noah Cross gets under your skin, before you even know if he's done anything bad. Faye Dunaway rounds out the three leads and gives a wonderfully different take on the noir femme fatale.

Because of its downbeat and uncompromising take on the noir genre, Chinatown is a movie that subverts your expectations and therefore sticks out and grows in your mind in a way that most other crime thrillers don't. Robert Towne deservedly won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (the movie's only win in a year dominated by The Godfather part II), but it was reportedly Polanski who came up with the film's famous ending. This was just a few years after his wife Sharon Tate had been murdered by the Manson family, and was his first time shooting in LA since then, something he only agreed to because of the extraordinary strength of the script and his wish to work with friend Jack Nicholson. Sadly, it would be Polanski's last American film, as he would have his famous legal troubles just 3 years after Chinatown's release. It's a hell of a great American movie though.

6. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975, directed by Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam)
One of the handful of funniest movies ever made, Holy Grail is a right of passage for every teenager (especially boys, as girls don't respond to Monty Python quite as well, on average). It's probably the most quotable, and quoted, comedy of all time, and with good reason. Everything Python ever did was messy, with some bits that work and others that don't, but they were never as consistently hilarious as in Holy Grail. Surprisingly well shot on a shoestring budget, it's a good old fashioned "let's throw everything we can at the wall and see what sticks" kind of comedy, with musical numbers, animation, failed musical numbers, storybooks, narrators, and many more techniques showing up on the episodic quest for the Holy Grail. And none of that even covers the characters, sequences, and lines that have entered pop culture over the past 35+ years.

There's much debate among Python fans as to whether this or their subsequent movie, the controversial Biblical tale Life of Brian, is superior. For me it's easy. Life of Brian obviously benefited from the Pythons experience making this movie, as it's more professional looking and was made on a significantly higher budget. It's a good movie, with many hugely hilarious and wonderfully quotable lines. But it's no Holy Grail. Holy Grail is the best comedy of the 70's, and if you don't believe me, I shall be forced to taunt you a second time.

5. Apocalypse Now (1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)
A towering nightmare of a movie, and even more so of a production (check out the great documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse for that fascinating backstory), Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now was the last of 4 masterpieces by the man (the 2 Godfathers and The Conversation being the others, of course), and is one of the great achievements in cinema. Speaking to the depth of greatness of the 1970's, I would list this movie among the top 25 or so ever made, yet is only #5 of its decade. Martin Sheen stars as Capt. Willard in the loose adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as a Vietnam soldier sent on an assassination mission on former hero Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who has set up his own Cambodian army, with himself as a God like figurehead.

The nightmare of the movie is the long trip down river as Willard comes across Lt. Col. Kilgore (Robert Duvall) bombing a Vietnamese village so they can get the good surfing waves there, a USO show featuring Playboy Bunnies, and unseen attackers as they get closer and closer to the hell of Kurtz's compound where he lectures Willard on war, humanity, and civilization as his fool (a photographer played by Dennis Hopper) babbles on about Kurtz's greatness. It's all so tragic, yet hallucinogenic enough that you're not really sure what Willard will do once he gets to the compound. That's also based on Brando's divisive work as Kurtz. It was among the first works of Brando I saw and I was completely spellbound as he captured my attention like few other actors ever had. I was fascinated by every single (sometimes nonsensical) word. Some say he was lazy and bloated, I say he's brilliant. Sheen too is terrific as Willard, and all of the supporting cast is wonderful.

But even Brando doesn't steal the spotlight from the movie itself, which is so epic even when feeling so singularly personal and emotional. There are also so many things about it that work like a lot of 70's cinema does for me, which is like music. You can't always quite describe why one thing is particularly better than another, but you feel it in your gut. "The horror... the horror..." sticks with you like all the great closing lines do, maybe because there are so many things the phrase could be applied to in the movie. Maybe because it's the great final notes in an incomparable symphony.

4. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, directed by Werner Herzog)
 One of the biggest influences on Coppola's Apocalypse Now was the movie that introduced the genius of Werner Herzog to the rest of the world. His fourth fiction film, it was his first with volatile star Klaus Kinski (father of Nastassja Kinski), who gives one of the great crazy man performances in the history of movies. It's the fictional story of a group of Spanish conquistadors looking for the fabled El Dorado, the City of Gold. Like Apocalypse Now, it's a slowly burning tale of madness, though here we stay with Don Lope de Aguirre (Kinski) as he takes over the mission, only to lead it to insanity and tragedy.

Kinski's work as a crazy man may not have been great acting, as by all accounts Kinski was every bit a barely controlled crazy man. Still, his work succeeds on screen in giving us a descent into delusion and a frenzy of blood as he becomes single minded in his tragic quest for the golden city. The perfect compliment to his erratic star, Herzog's gift of telling stories by not seeming to tell stories is a singular gift. His films unfold as if they're not at all planned, but we never doubt we're in the hands of a master who knows where he's taking us. Herzog's habit of not storyboarding his shots leads not to messy shooting (though a low budget movie like this has a bit of that too) but of found, seemingly accidental awe inspiring visuals. The opening shot of thousands of people marching down one hill and up another in the dangerous looking jungles of Ecuador is one of the great shots in movies, as is the closing shot. Aguirre alone in his madness, surrounded by chattering monkeys, muttering to himself on a raft, the camera slowly circles him as he leaves the screen, but not our memories. Not anytime soon anyway, this movie sticks with you for a while.

3. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, directed by Steven Spielberg)
The concept of "first contact" (the first interactions between mankind and an alien race) has long been one of the most fascinating to me. Many movies and books have revolved around the topic, in an infinite number of ways, and my favorite movie dealing with it is Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Like he often does, Spielberg picked just the right leading man for the job here, as Richard Dreyfuss is not exactly your regular everyman. He gives off that quality, but has a sarcastic intelligence, and sometimes anger, that makes him feel even more relateable. As he says at one point in the movie, he didn't ask for "this" to happen to him (to have contact with aliens). He's not even really sure what happened, or why, or what it means, or where he goes from here. He loses everything in his life to find the answer to those questions.

I loved the movie when seeing it as a kid, but watching as an adult, I wonder why. It's actually not a very fast paced movie, with much of the time being spent watching Dreyfuss think and try to figure out what he's going to do, or with French UFO scientist Claude Lacombe (legendary director Francois Truffaut) and his interpreter (Bob Balaban) as they go on a similar chase for knowing the unknown. But I bet the seeds for my fascination in first contact were sown when I saw the powerful final section of this movie, where the Mothership shows up and we finally make our contact. It's a transcendent piece of filmmaking, awe inspiring and impressive on both a technical and storytelling level, the special effects are so prominent but always serve to better the story. I also love that we see the aliens, but they never speak nor directly communicate, and watching the original theatrical cut, we don't see inside their ships nor do we ever understand what they want. There's something I always liked about that.

A side note that I enjoy: what communication we do get from the aliens is done through music, and eventually through computers playing musical sequences in a repeated pattern. When on the show Inside the Actors Studio, it was pointed out to Spielberg that the aliens communicate through computers and music, while Spielberg's mother was a music teacher and his father a computer scientist. He was happily appreciative of that being pointed out to him, as it was coincidence and had never occurred to him until then.

2. Taxi Driver (1976, directed by Martin Scorsese)
Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver was a very important and influential movie in my development as a cinephile. I first watched it when I was about 16, I think, and I thought it was okay. Over the years, Travis Bickle's lonely decline into violent madness has haunted me and begged for re-watch after re-watch. Robert De Niro gives one of his many extraordinary performances, and working with Scorsese for the second of eight times the pair give us one of the great character portraits ever committed to celluloid. It's the story of Travis Bickle, a lonely insomniac Vietnam vet who drives around NYC when he can't sleep until he figures he might as well get paid for it by being a cabbie. Seeing the grimy, drug riddled, dangerous streets of pre-Guiliani NYC, Travis calls himself "God's lonely man" who thinks thoughts like "some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the streets."

We follow Travis on his journey to becoming that rain to wash scum off the streets, but before we get there he meets Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), a campaign worker, and Iris (Jodie Foster) a 12-year-old prostitute. He eventually takes it upon himself to be the savior of these two women, the fact that neither seems to want saving being irrelevant to Travis. The most disturbing thing about the finale of Taxi Driver is that after Travis kills a bunch of low life creeps, he's hailed in the media as a hero trying to clean up the city, while we who've been with him know that he was simply a ticking time bomb who went off, it just happened to be directed at these people (don't buy from anyone that everything after the shootout is a dream, that's bullshit). Travis saves his news clippings, and a letter from Iris's parents, but the final scene plays a strange noise as Travis looks in his rearview mirror at Betsy. To me this has always been the sound of the time bomb starting to tick down again.

It's a hauntingly lonely and disturbing movie that I can't shake for days each time I watch it. In the best possible way, and in a way that few movie have ever affected me.

1. The Godfather (1972, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

Conventional choice? Sure. Expected? Maybe. Boring? No way. Few movies have ever been as entertaining as The Godfather. Few movies have ever been as densely constructed as The Godfather. There's seriously not a wasted scene or moment in the entire film, everything means something. We're conditioned by other movies that there will be throwaway lines, moments, even whole scenes in which nothing was really accomplished in either a character or plot development way. Not so in the best adaptation of a book ever made.

Marlon Brando's work gets better every time I watch this movie, and ditto Al Pacino. The scenes between the two of them are electric in their greatness, as Brando's Vito Corleone cedes power of his mafia family to Pacino's Michael. Robert Duvall, James Caan, John Cazale, Talia Shire, they're all wonderful. But to me the movie comes down to the operatic execution of the amazing script from Coppola and the novel's author Mario Puzo (one of the movie's only 3 Academy Awards), and those two lead performances from Pacino and Brando. Of course, you could praise everything from Gordon Willis's influential photography (for which the master somehow didn't even get nominated for an Oscar) to the flawless production and costume design, Nino Rota's famous score, everything. It's one of the most thoroughly well made movies I've ever seen.

But none of that would make The Godfather as esteemed as it is if it wasn't so layered, powerful, and damn entertaining to watch. There's a reason so many people consider it the best movie ever made. I have to watch it every once in a while and I never fail to love it even more than I did the last time.


Groggy Dundee said...

I'm enjoying this series, keep it up.

Kyle said...

I'm glad, since I actually stole that picture of Pacino in "Dog Day Afternoon" from your blog, lol.

kathy said...

I've seen all but #9, an #4. Your ninth selection seems like a movie that would interest me, since I like Hitchcock. Reading your 70's list made me remember what great films came out of that decade!